There are plenty of reasons why the project to widen the 405 Freeway is $100 million over its $1.048-billion budget and 14 months behind schedule. And none of them has to do with the complaint — often reported by drivers on the freeway — that workers are standing around doing nothing. (In fact, they are probably on a break or waiting for a delivery.) The most significant factor is that Metro decided to hire a contractor to design and build the project at the same time. That “design/build” process is faster than the more traditional approach of designing a project, then putting it out for bid and then building it, which in this case would have taken at least a decade.
But the design/build approach is risky because the preliminary engineering work handed to the contractor is just that — preliminary. And the transit agency accelerated the start of this project to take advantage of $190 million in available federal funds. Not until the contractor, Kiewit Corp., got out there did anyone know about the number of utility lines running under Sepulveda Boulevard that needed to be relocated. Nor did they expect to find a 12-foot-by-12-foot storm drain beneath the street that had to be relocated or bridged.
Lots of people bear some responsibility for the delays and cost overruns in the effort to add a northbound HOV lane to the 405 between the 10 and 101 freeways: The contractor proposed a budget that had too low a contingency fee (3.2%) built in. Metro officials knew it was too low. More than a dozen retaining walls built by the contractor had to be taken down and rebuilt. Community activists and preservationists fought Metro’s plan to tear down the Mulholland Bridge and build a new one that would span the widened freeway, so Metro opted instead for a more time-consuming renovation of the bridge in sections. Then Caltrans, which owns the freeways, asked — after the 405 contract had been awarded — for improvements, including widening the southbound HOV lane to what is now standard width. Perhaps the most avoidable delay was caused when Caltrans approved construction of a ramp near the Getty that would have encroached on a private property owner’s easement. After a yearlong legal battle, the transit agencies backed off.
And don’t forget that Metro has a board overseeing and signing off on the plan and every major modification. It includes all five county supervisors and the mayor, among others. Perhaps it should have raised more questions about how risky and disruptive it might be to do exploratory engineering even as construction was starting. Once it was underway, maybe the board should have been more aggressive about riding herd on the project.
But while blame is being cast, let’s also remember that this is an extraordinary undertaking: Crews are carving into the side of a mountain pass to widen a freeway and move Sepulveda Boulevard 14 feet to the east. Frankly, it would have been remarkable if nothing had gone wrong.
That said, there are some important lessons that Metro should learn from this experience as it embarks on a flurry of high-budget transportation projects. The most important: A pure design/build approach does not work well on big, challenging projects. These projects need more time upfront for engineering and preliminary design work. (Indeed, Metro officials are already building in more upfront engineering time on the Crenshaw line and other rail projects.) And Metro and its contractors need to set more realistic budgets from the get-go, instead of assuming they’ll go back to the state or county later for more money.
Even behind schedule, Metro officials keep reminding us that the project is almost done, and that in fact, a 1.7-mile chunk of the new lane has already opened. Nevertheless, there’s still 60 more weeks of slogging through construction zones for drivers who use or live near the second-most trafficked highway in the country. Residents have already suffered through years of traffic jams, detours and obstacle courses of orange cones because of construction on the freeway and its ramps, the Mulholland Bridge, the Sunset Boulevard Bridge and Sepulveda Boulevard; many of those problems have occurred simultaneously.
Anything that would help speed up the project — including 24/7 construction or a mini-Carmageddon — should be done. After all, nothing in this project to alleviate traffic went more successfully than the days we couldn’t drive on the freeway.